Theories Behind Criminal Punishment

Cite this article as: Jason Mance Gordon, "Theories Behind Criminal Punishment," in The Business Professor, updated January 5, 2015, last accessed April 8, 2020,
Video Thumbnail
Theories of Criminal Punishment
This video explains the various justifications or theories behind the various types of criminal punishment.

Next Article: Federal Sentencing Guidelines


What are the theories for criminal punishment?

Numerous theories or philosophies exist for imposing some form of sanction upon criminal conduct, including:

  • Retribution – Retribution theory states that an individual should suffer or incur some harm for her conduct.
  • Deterrence – Deterrence theory states that imposing sanctions on conduct will prohibit that type of conduct. Individual deterrence says that imposing sanctions will prevent an individual from undertaking that conduct. General deterrence focuses on the signaling effect that punishing a criminal has on the population. Those who are aware of the sanctions inflicted upon an individual will be less likely to undertake that conduct.
  • Incapacitation – Incapacitation theory says that society should be protected against individuals who commit a crime for a specific period of time.
  • Rehabilitation – This theory states that an individual receives sanctions with the purpose of allowing the individual time to mentally process her actions. This may include training to help the individual understand the wrongfulness of the conduct and, hopefully, reform and refrain from committing further criminal conduct.
  • Restoration – This theory states that the victim deserves to be made whole (or as close as possible) from the criminal activity. The cost of making the victim whole should be borne by the criminal. This may include providing the victim with the sanctity of mind that this type of conduct will not happen again.

Legislators and judicial figures do not have to state their reasoning when passing criminal statutes or handing down criminal sentences.

Discussion: Which, if any, of these philosophical justifications for criminal punishment convince you? Why or why not?

Discussion Input

  • Many people will identify multiple justifications for criminal punishment. One might even identify unique justifications for punishment based upon the nature of the offense.

Practice Question: The Oregon legislature is revisiting the state statutes concerning penalties for specific crimes. The legislature has asked you to testify as an expert regarding theories of criminal punishment. In a concise paragraph, provide an explanation of the primary theories supporting punishment for criminal infractions.

Proposed Answer

  • There are myeriad theories behind criminal punishments. Some of the most common include:
    • Deterrence – This refers to having policies in place that will scare people from committing crimes. The utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham is credited with articulating the three elements that must be present if deterrence is to work; the punishment must be administered with celerity, certainty and appropriate severity.
    • Incapacitation – This is a very pragmatic goal of criminal justice. The idea is that if criminals are locked up in a secure environment, they cannot go around victimizing everyday citizens.
    • Rehabilitation – This is a noble goal of punishment by the state that seeks to help the offender become a productive, non-criminal member of the society. This can be achieved through education programs, faith-based programs, drug treatment programs, anger management programs, and many others are aimed at helping the offender “get better”.
    • Retribution – Retribution means giving the offenders the punishment they deserve. Under this theory, the state aims at ensuring that the punishment offered to the criminal fits the offense committed. This is best explained by the doctrine of proportionability.
    • Restoration – The perpetrator is ordered to restore the victim to the state they were in before the crime was committed.

Was this article helpful?